3 Examples of Path Dependence

Recently I re-discovered an interesting concept called path dependence. It came to me after reading the following Tweet, by journalist Jon Stone:

Can you imagine the hysterical reaction if someone had suggested the creation of public libraries today. “For free? how are you going to pay for that, STALIN?”

Considering our current governments which are quite conservative, the idea of public libraries can be preposterous. Most of the parties in power (e.g. in the US or the UK) would not consider providing such a non-vital good (books in this case) to people for free. So how is it possible that public libraries do in fact exist, even though the reigning parties would not consider it good policy? One way of explaining this is with the concept of path dependence. There are a number of different definitions of path dependence, but the one I use here is the idea that a specific product, process or even specific beliefs are in place because of historic use.

This is an incredibly interesting concept, because it can illustrate why something is in place today (such as public libraries) even though it goes against what we currently think is a better alternative or even the best option. In this article, I’ll illustrate the concept of path dependence with three examples.

 

Path Dependence in Hardware: The QWERTY Keyboard

One of the most famous examples of path dependence is the QWERTY keyboard. Chances are, you are reading this article on a device that uses QWERTY; simply look at the first letters on your keyboard.

This keyboard was created specifically to fix certain errors present in earlier keyboards. These earlier typewriters could jam when specific keys were hit quickly after another — the QWERTY design, created at the end of the 19th century, positioned these keys away from one another, so that the jams didn’t occur.

The story goes that the Dvorak layout*, patented in 1936, was much more efficient than QWERTY. Mr. Dvorak specifically designed this layout for efficiency, and typists trained with Dvorak are said to be up to 74% faster than those using QWERTY.

If this is the case, why then do we currently use the QWERTY keyboard? The reason is path dependence. Once a few companies started manufacturing QWERTY keyboards, and a few people started using them, the standard became an actual standard. If you see people in your vicinity use a QWERTY keyboard, and it’s cheaper than a Dvorak one, the choice is clear.

Even if you know that a Dvorak keyboard is more efficient, it’s not just making the switch itself that is difficult. Certainly, learning to type on a new keyboard layout will be a challenge, but it is doable. However, the path dependence here comes more from network effects, i.e. that everyone uses a QWERTY keyboard. This means for instance that anytime you use a device of someone else, you’ll have to go back to your old QWERTY ways, which makes it even more difficult to make a permanent switch to Dvorak.

Interestingly, even though everyone uses QWERTY vs Dvorak as the main example of path dependence, I do want to let you know that it has received a lot of criticism. Already back in the 1990s, two academics published an article named “The Fable of the Keys“, which demonstrated that there were actually very few efficiency differences between the two keyboard lay-outs. But whether or not it is fully accurate, the story is interesting and does a good job at illustrating path dependence.

* Note that Dvorak is not fully capitalized here, because unlike QWERTY, it was named after its inventor August Dvorak.

 

Path Dependence in Urban Geography: Cotton in Lancashire

Another interesting example of path dependence I found relates to urban geography, and the UK cotton industry. Blooming in the 19th century, the cotton industry was mostly focused around Lancashire, a county near Liverpool and Manchester. There were two reasons for the cotton industry’s presence here: skilled workers and natural resources (water, coal) that were heavily used in the production process.

Interestingly though, according to economists Crafts and Wolf, skilled workers and natural resources could also be found elsewhere. In other words, there was no specific reason for the cotton industry to be in Lancashire. And perhaps other locations would be even better suited for cotton manufacturers and traders, such as those with better access to London and other capitals.

So the reason that cotton was situated in Lancashire, according to these two economists, was again this network effect. Once people started manufacturing and processing cotton in Lancashire, they attracted others. Suppose for instance that you were interested in taking part in the cotton industry, as a worker, a manufacturer or trader. Whatever your job was, it made sense to go to Lancashire and set up shop there — after all, that’s where you could find work.

And so again, just like with the QWERTY keyboard, this example illustrates that even though better potential options exist, a ‘lesser’ option is taken, and it becomes increasingly difficult to from this option to a better one.

 

Path Dependence in Business: Fossil Fuels

A last example I want to mention is that of fossil fuels. By now you should have a fair idea of what path dependence is, so you’ll probably see how fossil fuels are relevant here.

Over the years, it has become clear that renewable energy is the better choice. There is no end to these energy sources, and pollution is kept to a minimum. Nonetheless, fossil fuels currently still make up between 75% and 80% of our total global fuel consumption.

One reason for this is that fossil fuels were and still are a cheap source of energy. But considering the climate crisis and all the natural and societal effects fossil fuels (and CO2-emissions) have, there are obviously better outcomes. So the reason for the prevailing power of fossil fuels can be found in path dependence; if you’re someone looking for a job, or a company looking for a market to sell to, you’ll simply have better chances in the oil industry than in the wind farm industry. Or in other words, because initial investments in (extracting and using) fossil fuels were made, it has become easier for others to follow the same path.

 

Breaking Away from a Dependent Path

So what can we do ‘against’ path dependence? As you’ve seen, path dependence often means that there are better potential options, possibilities or outcomes, that we do not or cannot take. And while this may not such be a big issue for our keyboard habits or the location of the cotton industry, in the case of fossil fuel use, we need to find a way to deal with this.

In my view, there are a couple of ways to do so. First, just like when making unrestricted choices, become aware that you’re on a ‘dependent path’. This awareness should come with the realization that change can be incredibly hard. The unfortunate thing of path dependence is that the problem at hand is now ‘nobody’s fault’. After all, it often relates to in-action (e.g. keyboard users didn’t want to start using the DVORAK keyboard, and keyboard manufacturers thus didn’t want to sell them), and the challenges are enormous. So even for those who do want to make a difference, it’s incredibly difficult.

Nonetheless, change is possible. So second, in some cases there is a first-mover advantage. This means that who ever moves first has an advantage over those they are in competition with. Take the fossil fuels example; those who are the first to move to renewables will have an edge over the competition. This applies to business (e.g. Tesla), but also to governments; countries with the right infrastructure for renewable energy will be a step ahead and attract more investments and jobs.

And third, even when there isn’t a first-mover advantage, there may be first-movers. Consumers, governments and companies may take a specific option that is not the cheapest. You may start to drink oat milk, even though it tastes slightly worse and is more expensive. By making this specific choice, you show others what’s possible. Hopefully, this may lead others to follow, and help us break away from the path we’re currently on.


Making Unrestricted Choices

When I launched a newsletter accompanying this blog, I named it: ‘Unrestricted’. I came up with this name on the basis of the organizational purpose of the company I ran for two years called Infloat. Recently, the company has stopped operations, but I find that its organizational purpose is more relevant than ever. Specifically, our company’s purpose was “to activate people in making unrestricted choices“.

As an entrepreneur in Europe, that was a lofty goal for a 2-man startup, but it was something we wanted to strive for. After all, my co-founder and I felt that people around us made too many choices on the basis of the wrong reasons. Choices about relationships, careers, housing, or other important life issues.

People often do not see the other options available, or are restricted in their decision-making by certain expectations, biases and other limitations. That is something I still feel — that people are too restricted in decision-making. But what do I mean with this ‘restrictedness’? Who or what restricts us from making a specific choice or decision? And even if we can define what ‘unrestricted’ means, how can we make sure to make lift these limitations — and make decisions entirely without restrictions?

 

What do Unrestricted Choices or Unbiased Decisions mean?

What unrestricted choices mean in this context — the context of decision-making — is partly personal. However, to me it means making choices without limitations. To make decisions without bias. To let go of preconceived notions of what you should do. To not being limited by what other people think, by what is expected from you by society, your parents, friends, partners or the world at large. To think beyond existing patterns and see additional options or choices that you did not see before, or that did not seem like an option at all.

Perhaps that’s still a rather vague concept. But we can clarify this by zooming in, and looking at what or who may sometimes restrict us in our decision-making.

 

By what are we biased?

So what restricts us? What biases us in making certain choices or decisions in life — whether it comes to our relationships, work, finances, happiness, or something else entirely? Aren’t our lives un-scripted? Don’t we all believe in free will?

While there is a lot to say about free will — and we won’t get too philosophical here — I do believe that restrictions, limitations, censorship, obstacles, biases and blockades exist for many of us. We can think of countless examples, but here are a few that I want to mention.

 

Societal Restrictions on Decision-Making

However you call it, when making a decision, we often ‘feel’ the expectations from society — or ‘the way things should be’. Consider for instance the way we approach our career or family life. We’re supposed to get a job after graduating, we’re supposed to work a few years for the same company, and we’re suppposed to slowly but surely work our way up. We’re supposed to get a partner sometime in our twenties, marry that person, and get kids soon after.

Certainly, there are some local differences depending on which country or city you live in. But by and large, such expectations really pervade our culture. And we feel these expectations particularly when we want to make a choice that goes against a pre-existing norm. Let’s say for instance you want to move abroad, or take a 3-year sabbatical in your twenties. There’s a fair chance that people around you will discourage you, because it goes against existing norms. “Why would you? No one does that in their twenties! And it will hurt your long-term career prospects!”

 

Value-Based Restrictions from Friends and Family

Similarly, we can be restricted by our family and friends. Take some time and think about what your friends and family members have in common, and the values they share. Whatever these values are — from frugality to honesty — it is very likely that sometimes somehow they influence your decision-making.

In my personal case, a majority of my family members have studied for a particular career; they studied medicine to become a doctor, or studied law to become a lawyer. In contrast, I studied politics and economics, but did not become a politician or economist. Because this was uncommon in our family, it was sometimes difficult to follow a different path. And even in cases when your parents (or others) support you in making a choice that goes against what is seen as ‘normal’, you still have to face your own doubts and the (often assumed) opinions of others.

 

Our Cognitive Biases (Kahneman & Tversky)

And then there are the most elusive decision-restricting viarables of them all: cognitive (or psychological) biases. Anyone who has read Thinking Fast and Slow or has heard about the term ‘behavioral economics’, will have heard of this concept before.

Popularized by Kahneman and Tversky (who started publishing their research back in the 70s!), we are all restricted somehow by specific biases. Specifically, we encounter a cognitive bias when we’re prone to take a certain action that would otherwise be illogical to take.

Examples of such biases are the confirmation bias (you actively look for information and evidence that supports pre-existing beliefs), anchoring (you relate the options to a decision to the first option you’ve received), false consensus effect (you overestimate the amount of people that agree with you), and many more.

Just listing these biases is not enough. To really show you how they restrict our decision-making, it is imperative to give an example. Take for instance the availability heuristic. In essence, this means that we attach greater importance to information that comes to mind quickly.

Now let’s say you think about moving. You either want to go to the United States, or someplace in South America. South America is a big place. But with stories about drugs and gang violence and Netflix shows like Narcos, the first image that comes to mind when thinking about South America is not too positive. So instead, you choose to move to the USA: “the land of the free and home of the brave”.

Here, we see the availability heuristic in action. You haven’t actually considered both options on their merits — rather, you’ve based your decision on information that was most easily available (i.e. that in South America drugs and crime run rampant). Obviously, this is just one example of a bias, but there are many more that can influence our decision-making.

 

Limiting Our Decisions by Self-Censorship

Above, I briefly mentioned the assumed opinions of others. Another highly important way we often feel restricted in our decision-making is by self-censorship. What do I mean with this?

Literally, self-censorship is “the exercising of control over what one says and does, especially to avoid criticism”. In other words, we often specifically NOT go for a specific option, because we’re afraid of what others might think of us — even if we didn’t actually ask or verify this opinion of others.

Suppose you’re at the Starbucks and want to order some coffee. You walk up to the counter, glance at the display, and suddenly you see this massive piece of red velvet cake with Oreo toppings and extra pieces of chocolate. Sounds amazing, right? If you were by yourself, there would’ve been no doubt in your mind to “have your cake and eat it too”. That Red Velvet would be gone in no-time.

You see this massive piece of red velvet cake with Oreo toppings and extra pieces of chocolate. Sounds amazing, right?

But in this particular case, the Starbucks is packed. It’s filled with people who you expect to have a particular opinion of you when buying and eating that piece of cake, all for yourself. So if it was just up to your desires, the choice would be clear. But in this case, you want to avoid criticism (even though this criticism is assumed and only exists inside your head!), so you choose not to buy that delicious piece of heaven after all.

This is just a (perhaps somewhat odd) example, but self-censorship happens all the time. And it’s not necessarily bad, but when we’re making important decisions, it’s good to know when you’re restricted, and when you’re censoring yourself. To ask yourself: What assumptions am I making here? And is this what I really want?

 

The Goal: Not Unrestricted Decision-Making, but Accepting the Consequences

Considering all of these ways in which our unrestricted choices are in fact limited by what society thinks, the values of the people around us, specific biases and our self-censoring beliefs, may lead us to question everything around us. After all, if we accept that we’ve been heavily influenced in our decision-making, how do we know that we’ve ended up here because of our own personal volition?

That may be a frightening thought, but my goal with this article is not to make you rethink your life choices. If you’ve followed a traditional career or life — and if you have a house, a dog, a wife or husband, children and a job as a teacher, doctor or lawyer, then that’s fine with me. But what’s even finer with me, is if you’ve accepted this.

Let me ask you this: Have you accepted that the choices you made, brought you to where you are today? If you decide to go to work tomorrow, just like any other day, have you accepted that decision and are you happy with it? Illustrating that question is the goal of this article. It’s to show you that there are often other options, even though I don’t urge you to take these. I simply want to show them to you.

Like Morpheus said in one of my all-time favorite movies, the Matrix:

I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.

But in contrast to the Matrix, there is no right or wrong here. Walking through the door or not walking through the door — it’s all the same to me. But knowing that the door exists, knowing that there are other doors out there, doors that you might have not considered in the first place, or doors you might not have seen because they were hidden or because you thought they weren’t meant for you to open, that is the point of this article — and more generally, of my newsletter. To have you realize that a decision, and especially big life decisions, have more options than you think. And perhaps also to try and care less about what other people think of your decisions.

As always, it’s easier to give advice than to follow it. So even though I have taken a slightly different route (in terms of my career) than others, I’m certain that my choices aren’t unrestricted; that many of my decisions are heavily influenced by a variety of variables. And to be fully honest with you, depending on how I feel, I have or haven’t fully accepted that.


Let’s Value Entrepreneurship in Europe

For a long time, I’ve been interested in entrepreneurship. In how companies get started and grow over time; and in the people that come up with an idea and actually decide to make that idea into a business. It’s simply amazing to see what people can do when they decide to start a company.

But the reason why entrepreneurship is interesting is not just because of some crazy ideas like Elon Musk’s space travel plans. Entrepreneurship in itself is tremendously valuable. Valuable for the person starting a company and valuable for society at large. Nonetheless, it seems that entrepreneurship — particularly in Europe — is not always seen as such. So in this article, I’ll take a look at why entrepreneurship is so important, and why and how we should value entrepreneurship in Europe.

 

Value of Entrepreneurship

How important is entrepreneurship? Well, we can’t answer this question quantitatively, but we can take a look at what makes building businesses valuable. First, becoming an entrepreneur brings a lot of value to the person starting the company (which may be you). Often, you willingly put yourself outside of your comfort zone, which is where you learn the most. And this learning, this personal development, is what makes this such a valuable career path.

Perhaps more important is the value of entrepreneurship for society. For example, if you’re an employee at a company, someone sometime had the crazy idea to start that specific company. Indirectly, because of him or her, you now have a job. Perhaps to you, it doesn’t feel like you owe someone anything. After all, you got the job because of your skills and experiences. Nonetheless, without the person that started that specific company, you would have been working elsewhere. So without those willing to take a risk and start something, our society wouldn’t function the way it does.

The story of entrepreneurship is essentially a story about innovation

And this doesn’t just apply to jobs specifically. The story of entrepreneurship is essentially a story about innovation. From Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs, millions of entrepreneurs around the world have created new inventions; inventions that have been spread to consumers worldwide, by the companies these entrepreneurs built.

Considering all of the effects (personal development, creating jobs, innovation, etc. ) that entrepreneurship can bring, it should be clear what the value of entrepreneurship is, and that our society, governments, infrastructure and people should encourage entrepreneurship at large.

 

Facilitating Entrepreneurship in Multiple Ways

However, this ‘encouragement’ of entrepreneurship is not a given. And encouraging entrepreneurs to start businesses can happen in different ways. Through facilitating regulations, creating pro-startup infrastructure, or even by the general pervading ‘startup culture’. In that sense, just like with differences in work breaks, we can look at how we can encourage and value entrepreneurship on multiple levels.

 

International & National Laws and Regulations

Starting at an (inter)national level, we see that certain regulations can make ‘life’ easier for both startups and those wanting to start a company. For instance, the European Union works hard on what it calls the Digital Single Market — an initiative that aims to “tear down unnecessary regulatory barriers” for digital products and services.

Another example of this is the Dutch law regarding capital requirements. Before 2012, you could only start a BV company (an LLC equivalent) with at least €18.000 on the bank. This minimum capital requirement has since been abolished, making it much easier for people wanting to start a business (as a BV) to do so.

 

Infrastructure for Startups

Alternatively, we can look at facilitating infrastructure, such as other companies that provide services for startups and starting entrepreneurs. In Europe, the amount of money that European venture capital (VC) firms have available to invest in startups has grown quite a bit over the last years. In 2016, VC companies in Europe invested around €6.5 billion in startups, a sizeable amount. Unfortunately, this amount pales in comparison to their American equivalents, who invested around €39.4 billion in that same year.

Another very interesting example of current pro-startup infrastructure in the US is the so-called Thiel Fellowship. This fellowship was founded by Peter Thiel, famous entrepreneur and investor (e.g. founder of Paypal, investor in Facebook, Airbnb, etc.). According to the website, “the Thiel Fellowship gives $100,000 to young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom.” In other words, this initiative actively encourages university students to drop out of university in order to found a company.

However, in Europe such a fellowship does not exist. And dropping out of university to start your own business is not something we commonly see. In Europe, failing is less of an option; Why should you drop out of college to pursue a risky dream? Or why would you “throw your life away” over “an experiment”?

 

Different Startup Cultures

These are just a few examples of how we can enable entrepreneurship in Europe. But as you can see from the last example, it’s not just about laws or infrastructure. It’s in our culture. Interestingly, encouraging entrepreneurship is simply a given in the United States. For Americans, there is no reason to read or write a blog article like this. In the US, if you tell others you work for yourself, you’re met with awe. And even failure (which is of course common among entrepreneurs) is seen as a success.

In contrast, in my experience here in Europe, entrepreneurs are seen as risk-takers. And risk-taking is something Americans do well, but Europeans — not so much. In 2014, >50% of Europeans preferred to work as an employee, while >50% of Americans preferred to work for themselves. Certainly, also in Europe there is some prestige to being an entrepreneur and they are seen as ‘cool’ and ‘exciting’. However, considering the risks and existing red tape, entrepreneurship is not often considered a viable career option.

That is not to say that the situation for European entrepreneurs is improving over time. Access to capital, non-restrictive laws to start a company, etc. are much better now than they were 10 or 20 years ago. But it’s interesting and important to face the legal, infrastructural and cultural divide that still exists — and which results in a brain-drain of startup companies who move to the US (and create jobs and innovation there instead of their home country).

 

A Call to Value Entrepreneurship in Europe

This article serves as a call to value entrepreneurship, specifically in Europe. And it’s very clear what entrepreneurship can bring. As an individual founding a company, you’ll learn more than you have ever learnt. And if we take a look at entrepreneurs more generally, we see that their contribution to society (in terms of economic development and innovation) is unparalleled.

And so on EU and national levels, we should promote regulations (such as the Digital Single Market) that make it easier for entrepreneurs to start a business and sell their products wherever they want. In terms of infrastructure, we should further support European venture capital firms, or even start ourselves as angel investors. And as individuals*, we should meet with and support entrepreneurs in our social circle. To encourage them in pursuing crazy ideas, even though they may fail — and change our culture bit by bit.

 

*And if you’re interested in entrepreneurship yourself, start thinking about an idea! Not just because it ‘has value’ for yourself and for others, but also because it’s an incredibly rewarding pursuit. Sure, there are obstacles on the road, and sure, it’s not easy. At first you will fail, but the rewards you get from trying are much more valuable. And if you don’t know where to start, start with the problem space and solution space.


Differences in Work Breaks

A number of people around me work in the medical field. They are doctors, nurses, psychologists, therapists and more, trying to make people (feel) better. As such, it’s never been a secret to me that generally, people in medicine work hard. They make long hours, and often have barely enough time to sit down and have lunch.

Although I knew this before, it struck me again in a conversation with a good doctor friend (or ‘good friend doctor’?). He indicated that during the shifts at his hospital, he never had the time to sit down to have lunch with his colleagues. Rather, he would simply find five minutes to quickly consume the sandwiches he made that morning — and be as efficient about it as possible.

This got me thinking. Apparently, there are a number of professions where work breaks are not normal. Like doctors who work in a hospital. Or even waiters working in a restaurant. In such professions, taking half an hour to sit down with your colleagues, eat your lunch, and talk about football or the weather is a no-go. But isn’t there a law that prevents this? And why do these differences in work breaks exist at all?

 

The Legal Basis for (Mandatory) Work Breaks

In most countries, labor laws dictate a minimal amount of breaks. That is, if a work shift goes over a fixed amount of hours. In the UK for instance, these rules apply:

  • Workers have the right to one uninterrupted 20 minute rest break during their working day, if they work more than 6 hours a day.
  • Workers have the right to 11 hours rest between working days, and
  • Workers have the right to either an uninterrupted 24 hours without any work each week or an uninterrupted 48 hours without any work each two weeks

In the USA, federal law (i.e. law that applies to all states), doesn’t give workers specific rights to meal or rest breaks. Some states have implemented such laws (e.g. allowing workers at least 30 minutes to eat if they work more than 5 or 6 hours), but many have not.

In contrast, Dutch law looks more like UK law; In the Netherlands, workers who work more than 5.5 hours should get a minimum of 30 minutes break. When working more than 10 hours, you have the right to a break of 45 minutes. However, these rules may differ in collective agreements that are set for specific professions. For many professions though, the collective agreements do not fundamentally differ from the law on this issue. For instance, for general practitioners and doctors training to be specialists (or those that are not), there are no additional regulations in the collective agreement regarding work breaks (for more specifics, see this document). And even in the hospitality business, in the Netherlands workers have the same rights as prescribed by law.

Considering this legal basis, why then do people in these professions still lack work breaks? After all, if it’s described by law, so shouldn’t it also be actively applied?

 

It’s a Cultural Issue

Obviously, the law isn’t always strictly applied in reality. As such, the absence of work breaks in different professions is often a cultural issue. Interestingly, this culture can form on different levels. Going back to the medical example, I’m willing to bet that on a national level, the amount of breaks for an aspiring medical specialist (in other words, nearly none) look pretty much the same. Perhaps internationally there are some differences, but if you’re a doctor training to be a specialist working for hospital A or hospital B, chances are that your amount of work breaks do not fundamentally differ.

This is pretty similar if you work in the hospitality industry. If you work as a waiter, you know you can’t expect a break if it’s very busy at the bar or restaurant you work at. But in other professions, the issue of not having work breaks can stem from a very local culture. For instance, when I worked as a civil servant, some departments (mine included) would go down to the cafetaria for lunch every day. In contrast, direct colleagues at other departments would simply eat lunch at their desk.

 

Implementing Work and Lunch Breaks

Luckily, because it is a cultural issue and not a legal one, it may be easier to create change. Obviously, this is easier when the ‘no-break-culture’ is very local. It’s not so difficult to tell your boss: “Let’s have a proper lunch break, just like our colleagues at other departments do”.

In contrast, if this culture is present on a sector-wide level, it is much more difficult to bring about change. That means you’re going against a pre-existing norm, and it would be difficult to suddenly start implementing proper lunch breaks.

But aside from how difficult it is to make this change, we should also consider how important this change could be. In industries like hospitality, it is relatively less important to provide people with lunch breaks. Certainly, I do think everyone is entitled to work breaks, and we/they should campaign to get them.

But in the case of medical professionals, the argument is clearer. The risks that come with making mistakes (for instance, when you’re tired) are much more important. So important in fact, that it is odd that this cultural issue is so pervasive. And in that sense, perhaps breaks should even be enforced.


Why Don’t People Meditate More?

In the Western world, meditation seems to be on the rise. We hear more and more about people around us practicing meditation. An aunt who gives mindfulness training, or a friend who regularly goes on a silent retreat. But we don’t just see this increase in our personal lives. We also see it in popular culture, in our work (e.g. mindfulness exercises), and in (personal development) books, where meditation is becoming more popular.

In the case of personal development, such books may discuss different ways to become happier. Aside from focusing on strengths and happiness (as articulated in an earlier article), books like Solve for Happy or Authentic Happiness often discuss how living in the present can make you happier. And one of the ways to live in the present is through (mindfulness) meditation*.

But though meditation becomes more common, we don’t meditate as much as we would expect on the basis of these books, apps and cultural influence. In fact, on this basis, you would expect meditation to be much more common than it is today. And that the majority of our friends and family members would practice it daily. But why don’t they? Why don’t people meditate more?

*Note that I use ‘meditation’ here as a catch-all definition. There are many different types of meditation, including mindfulness meditation, mantra meditation, movement meditation, loving-kindness meditation, yoga meditation, and many more.

 

Why We Should Meditate

Before trying to answer this question, it is important to set the stage. Some will surely think: “What’s the problem? I don’t meditate, but who cares? Sitting in silence is not a particularly attractive way to enjoy myself.”

But the problem becomes clear if you look at why we should meditate. And the answer to this question is simple. Practicing meditation daily may result in a range of scientifically proven benefits. From reducing feelings of stress or anxiety to improving sleep quality and (as said before) level of happiness, the advantages of meditation are many*.

I won’t get into this much further, but if there is one thing you take away from this paragraph, it is that meditation can have real tangible effects on our lives and well-being. And this transforms meditation from something religious or esoteric, to something more tangible, having real benefits on the lives of people like you and me.

* In a future article, I would like to list these benefits and see which ones are more scientifically ‘backed’ than others. This is because not all studies on meditation are as scientifically sound as others. For now, I’d like to point you to these two resources which offer an overview of studies on meditation and its potential benefits; The Wikipedia page on Research on Meditation, and this in-depth article from the US Department of Health.

 

How Many People Meditate?

With these benefits in mind, meditation should be a no-brainer. And indeed, looking at the big picture we see that the absolute amount of people who meditate is significant: apparently, it’s ‘between 200 and 500 million people‘. While this statistic says little (considering also it’s rather imprecise), we can say that in relative terms, around 5% of people on earth meditate daily.

Surprisingly, in Western countries, the percentage of meditators seem to be higher than the average. If we look at the United States, the percentage of American adults meditating rose in five years from 4.1% in 2012 to 14.2% in 2017. Such percentages can also be seen in the Netherlands, where in 2015 around 16 to 21% of Dutch people meditated from time to time.

But though people in (these) Western countries meditate more than the global average, these numbers are still relatively low. If the benefits are so clear, why do just 10-20% of people meditate?

 

Making Time to Meditate

In my opinion, there are at least three reasons why ‘we’ don’t meditate as much as you would expect. First, despite it having existed for thousands of years and recent scientific studies on meditation, for many people, the practice is not part of their culture; meditation is a foreign concept, only practiced by people other than themselves.

Second, even if we do know the benefits of meditation or meditate ourselves from time to time, we have busy lives. And that means that it’s difficult to find the time to meditate. I wouldn’t be surprised that if we would survey meditators, we would find that the majority would like to meditate more often than they currently do.

With a simple Google search this becomes even more apparent; there are hundreds of articles providing tips on making time to meditate: Schedule your sessions in advance in your calendar; do it right after you wake up; be mindful whenever you’re traveling. These tips and many more work to an extent. But for first-time meditators, finding the time can be a hassle.

 

Meditating is like Eating Healthy

But perhaps the most important reason why we don’t meditate more, is that meditating is like taking the train instead of the plane; like refraining from smoking; like eating healthy.

What do I mean by this? Well, just like with meditation, the result of (in)action will only manifest over a longer period of time.

Take eating healthy for example. Obesity is on the rise, and we know its cause. But because the impact of eating too much sugar or fat plays out on a longer period of time, it’s very easy to choose fast food over a home-cooked meal. Diabetes won’t hit us the next day. And the exact same thing occurs when it comes to making conscious decisions to help fight the climate crisis, like taking the train instead of the plane. Or when it comes to smoking and its long-term effects on our health.

In each and every one of these cases, we know the negative consequences of taking a certain (in)action over and over again. But making the right decision is difficult because there is no direct feedback loop. This is the same with meditation. If we meditate today, we won’t immediately feel less stressed, sleep better or be happier. In contrast, the result of daily meditation practice plays out over a longer period of time, and that’s why it’s so difficult to keep on keeping on.

 

To Meditate or Not To Meditate?

So we know the positive effects of meditation, but for many people it’s not a part of their culture. In addition, we often can’t find the time to meditate — and we have to do it again and again and again to enjoy its benefits. Unfortunately, there’s no direct solution to these problems. But we can make a difference in a few ways.

For instance, we can make meditation more accepted by talking about both the practice with friends and family. We can try to make more time for meditation — by using a variety of online tips and mobile apps (like Headspace, Insight Timer, Waking Up, etc.) that help us to meditate and be mindful throughout the day. And in this way, we keep reminding ourselves of the positive effects of meditation, and that daily practice will have long-term benefits. Hopefully, that will get us a long way.


 

Strengths and Happiness: Using Your Strengths to Become Happier

Like many, or perhaps like every person on this earth, I’d like to find happiness.

Happiness, of course, is an elusive concept. It means something different for me than it does for you. And to some, finding happiness is the ultimate goal in life. For others, it is not something to be pursued at all; it’s something you may find along the way, but definitely not the goal itself.

But what do you do if you do want to find happiness? How do you go about this? Where do you search and who do you ask for help? In my case, I read a book!

My thinking is: ‘where there’s a book, there’s a way‘. Or in other words, someone, somewhere knows a lot about happiness, and has probably written a book about it — which I can learn from, and hopefully apply to my life.

This reasoning is perhaps a bit simplistic, but it has worked quite well for me. One book I recently read is Authentic Happiness, by Martin Seligman, a popular American psychologist. The book gives you a wealth of information — from how to think about happiness to tips and tricks you can use to become happier in daily life.

And one particular section in that book is about your strengths and happiness, and using these strengths in your daily life or job to become happier. So how does that work?

 

What do Strengths got to do with Happiness?

According to the author, each and everyone of us has several signature strengths. There are 24 strengths in total*, ranging from hope to teamwork and from forgiveness to social intelligence.

The idea is that if you can find your signature strengths — these specific character traits or values that really describe who you are — and apply these in your daily life, you can become a happier person. But how do you find these strengths?

Luckily, there’s a test for that. The author (co-)developed the so-called VIA Character Strengths Survey, which is, according to the website, “the only free, scientific survey of character strengths in the world.” But before you go and take the (quite lengthy) test, let me show you what an example of the test and its outcome looks like.

 

* According to the VIA Institute of Character (an institute founded by the book’s author), these are the 24 character strengths: Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence; Bravery; Creativity; Curiosity; Fairness; Forgiveness; Gratitude; Honesty; Hope; Humility; Humor; Judgment; Kindness; Leadership; Love; Love of Learning; Perseverance; Perspective; Prudence; Self-Regulation; Social Intelligence; Spirituality; Teamwork; and Zest.

 

An Example of the VIA Strengths and Happiness Test

If you take the test, you’ll need around 15 minutes and answer a variety of questions. The questions are very broad, but always relate to your character and the way you view the world; from how often you keep your promises, to how interesting you view the world at large. The questions (a total of 240!) look like the following:

Showing questions of the VIA Character Strengths and Happiness Test

In my case, after some 20 minutes I found out these were my core strengths:

Forgiveness, Curiosity, Fairness, Equity, Honesty, Authenticity, Teamwork, Loyalty

 

Applying your Strengths in Daily Life

So, now what?

As mentioned earlier, the idea is that now that you know your strengths, you should position yourself in such a way that you can easily apply them. Simply put, the better and more often you can apply your strengths, the happier you’ll be (up to a certain extent, of course).

The thing is, however, that it’s not so easy to find ways to apply these strengths. Think for instance of how you would apply one of my character strengths, fairness, in your life. How would you do this? Or suppose that you’re a project manager; how do you get into a position where you can apply ‘forgiveness’?

When it comes to fairness, you can think of situations in which people (or animals) are treated unfairly, and try to correct this unfairness. This can be something as simple as getting coffee for a colleague who was somehow skipped in the ‘coffee round’. And in terms of forgiveness,  you could think of people who wronged you in one way or another, or even try to forgive yourself for a mistake you made in the past.

Nonetheless, it’s not so easy to directly see how you can apply certain strengths, especially those that you might not fully understand, like zest or prudence. So if you need additional ideas, this article provides extra tips.

 

Do the Test and Find Out!

Before you go ahead and take the test, I do feel the obligation to give a brief disclaimer and tell you to take these tests with a grain of salt (which also relates to my article on Issues with Personal Development). Happiness, as stated earlier, is not a clear-cut concept; it’s not black-and-white. You can’t just find out your strengths, apply them in your life and be happy. But I do think that it can make you happier. And even if it doesn’t, it’s a very interesting exercise in self-reflection.

So with that out of the way, I’d advise you to do the test! Find out what your core strengths are, and write them down. Discuss them with friends or family (or send them my way!) and see what they mean to you.

Then, take a look at a specific area in your life, such as your work or specific relationships. Ask yourself: How can you make sure you can apply these strengths more often? How can you make sure your strengths are more present in your daily job? Or can you move into a position where you can e.g. apply your curiosity — work more with others — or take the opportunity to be brave?

Set aside 15-20 minutes, and take the test! Share your results below, and I’ll see you on the other side ;).


Lying in Sales: From Software Demos to Job Interviews

If we think about sales, we often think about the work salespeople do. From selling complicated enterprise software products to selling new telephone contracts. But as many people who actually work in sales say, sales is not just ‘sales’.

In fact, you can also see sales as a more all-encompassing term. Perhaps you sell yourself, when going to a job interview. Or you ‘sell’ your book club to a friend, trying to get them to join. In that sense, selling is something we all do.

But however you sell something or whatever you sell, all these types of selling have one thing in common: Lying. And lying in sales is so common, that we all do it, whether we actually work as salespeople or not.

 

Distorting the Truth and Selling Software

The idea of the prevalence of lying in sales came to me when talking to my girlfriend about software sales (indeed an incredibly romantic topic). In both our experiences working in software companies, we’ve seen that lying in software sales is super common.

And just as the term ‘sales’ can be quite broad, similarly the term ‘lying’ can be quite broad. So perhaps we should call it ‘distorting the truth’ instead. But however you call it, it’s common.

Case in point: A SaaS (Software as a Service) startup where I worked some time ago. When demoing the software in front of potential clients, I would specifically show certain aspects of the software — which I knew were working well.

Other aspects, like certain bugs or database entries that weren’t fully populated, I would purposefully not show. Similarly, I would try to avoid as much as possible to get the potential client in control of the software, as he/she might see things that weren’t finished or working yet.

This is not to say that the software wasn’t working at all — it still provided value. But showing your software’s bugs would definitely not get you the client. And this kind of distorting the truth is done by almost any salesperson, in software or other industries.

 

Upgrading your CV

Another example of lying in sales (again, taking both ‘lying’ and ‘sales’ as broad concepts), is making yourself look better than you are during a job application.

Starting with your CV, you may indicate you’re an ‘intermediate Spanish speaker’ whereas you’ve finished only half of Duolingo’s exercises. Or you say you ‘led a team of 4’, even though there wasn’t really a leader in the team.

Or during the job interview, most people will choose to not give the full picture. Instead of ‘filling in an Excel spreadsheet’, you ‘created a financial model’; instead of ‘assisting a professor’, you ‘conducted independent research’; or instead of ‘being let go’, you simply ‘took a break’.

Surely, there are varying degrees of lying — you can take a small or large step away from the truth. But the fact is, we all do it.

 

Fake It Till You Make It

And in these particular cases, it often comes down to ‘fake it till you make it’. What does that mean?

Well, you first fake it. In other words, you distort the truth, tell white lies, are dishonest, false, or perhaps even mendacious or perfidious (thanks, thesaurus). In other words, you make the truth look better than it actually is.

And then, you make it. Even though you have made the truth better than it actually is, you now have to deliver on that promise. You now have to actually show you can create financial models, conduct independent research, or speak Spanish relatively well.

However, this is not always the case. When you lie, you don’t always fake it till you make it. Especially when you’re not lying about yourself. Take my first example: if you’re selling software, you’re often not responsible for delivering the software you sell. In other words, sometimes you fake it ’till others make it. Because you’re selling a lie that others have to deliver on.

Sometimes you fake it ’till others make it.

Or, perhaps you fake it to pass initial scrutiny, for instance on your CV. No one will actually test you for that specific knowledge (i.e. the great Spanish you definitely speak), but it is something that you could lie about to sell yourself to a potential employer.

 

Downsides of Lying in Sales

Now I’m not saying that you should lie about speaking Spanish while applying for a job in Barcelona. Or that you should say your software has features X and Y, while it only has feature Z. I’m not sure whether that’s a criminal offence, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend it. In any case, it won’t withstand any scrutiny.

But there are more realistic downsides than facing prison, when lying in sales. One negative impact of ‘faking it till you make it’, is stress.

Depending on the situation, it can be incredibly stressful to act like you know some topic or have experience in a particular field, without actually having this. It means you have to ‘stay ahead’ — just like teachers sometimes do; making sure they’re one page ahead of the class.

And in case you’re faking it till others make it, you can make life seriously difficult for your colleagues. Suppose you sell those features X and Y to a new client, and the client ends up buying your software. Now the developers in your company have to be able to deliver on these features that you sold; or you’ll lose the client.

 

Lying to Yourself?

Another downside of lying is that it may result in cognitive dissonance. In my personal case, I’m known to be quite an honest person. I also pride myself in being honest. So if I lie on my CV or in a sales demo, that means I’m going against a specific value I find very important, which leaves me (at the very least) with a bad taste.

But despite these downsides, distorting the truth is incredibly common. And in this sense, I think it’s not something to frown upon.

Especially if you consider that this lying is something we must do — even when you’re the most honest person in the world. Because in the end, you’re competing with others. Competing to land a job, a particular client, or even a new member for your book club.

Whatever it is, you’re competing. And that means that if you are totally honest, you probably won’t stack up against the competition. And sure, this is a slippery slope and a kind of prisoner’s dilemma. But it seems that if you want to compete in both sales and life, you may just have to lie a little.


Problem Space and Solution Space (and what so many people do wrong)

Recently I’ve been talking to a variety of product and project managers. One thing I always ask them is: “What books would you recommend?”. One of the answers I got was the Playing with FIRE book. Another recommendation, which is what this article is about, came from a product manager at a fintech startup: ‘the Lean Product Playbook’. After reading it, I’ve gotten very enthusiastic (as you can also see on the basis of my Tweets), and today I want to discuss one particular prominent concept that I think many entrepreneurs, including myself, can learn from. And that is the Problem Space and the Solution Space.

 

The Solution Space

Let’s start with the solution space. According to the author Dan Olsen, this is the fictional space in which you, as an entrepreneur, product owner or creator, build a solution. Let’s take an (entirely random 😄) example and say that you run a meetup for entrepreneurs.

In a way, this meetup is a product or solution. In this case, the solution has certain aspects: It is held every month, the focus is on learning and meeting others, and it is held somewhere in a city centre.

If you would want, you could change the solution and what makes it unique. Perhaps you want to organize the meetup someplace else, outside of the city. Or you might invite other kinds of people. By changing the solution, you make sure that it takes up a different location in the solution space.

But regardless of what location (or space) it takes in the solution space, your product should ideally be a solution to a particular problem. And that’s where the problem space comes in — which is what makes this concept truly interesting.

 

The Problem Space

If you want to properly build a product, startup or company, you should start with the problem space. The problem space, according to the book, is the space where you can find a particular problem.

Keeping in mind the example of before, perhaps you’ve found that entrepreneurs find it difficult to meet like-minded people. To them, that’s a problem. Alternatively, perhaps these entrepreneurs don’t feel as if they can easily learn about entrepreneurship. These problems, or customer needs, take up different locations in the problem space.

So far, so good, right?

Well, yes. But also, no.

While the concepts of problem and solution space are useful, they only become really useful if you are aware of what space you currently operate in — and if you look at how they relate to one another.

 

Problem-Solution Space Mountains

Another way to think about it, is to picture the two spaces as two mountains, just a meter (or couple of feet) apart. The mountain on the left, the problem mountain, is devoid of bushes or trees. It’s slick and slippery, and not easy to climb.

In contrast, the mountain on the right or solution mountain, is filled with greenery. You can easily find your way up the mountain — just use all the pretty trees to climb up.

If you stand on the right mountain and want to go to the left, you’ll have a really hard time. You can’t throw a rope to the other mountain, because there’s nothing there for the rope to hold on to.

But if you stand on the left mountain, you can easily build a bridge between the two, and move to solution mountain. Simply find a protruding branch of a solid-looking tree, tie your rope, and off you go.

Perhaps this metaphor sounds weird, or doesn’t make much sense. But the point I want to make is that (too) many founders start in the solution space — or on solution mountain. They start with building a solution, and only much later defining a problem.

Too many founders start on solution mountain.

 

Personal Examples of Climbing Solution Mountain First

If you think about this as an entrepreneur or founder, I’m sure there are almost too many examples that come to mind.

For instance, a few years ago, I started a subscription box for long-distance runners. Why? Because subscription boxes were the hot thing in founder-land, and I regularly ran 5-10 kilometers to stay fit.

But I didn’t first try and find a problem. Turns out, as a runner, I didn’t need a subscription box. And very few people did either.

Similarly, two years ago I started a consultancy in blockchain technology called Infloat. Blockchain was hot and I figured with my knowledge on the subject, I could consult other businesses on the technology’s implementation.

I was proudly waving my flag on top of solution mountain.

But again, I was proudly waving my flag on top of solution mountain. It’s only after my co-founder and I launched the consultancy that we started to look into the problem space: What was the actual problem that we wanted to solve with Infloat.

 

Start on Problem Mountain — and in the Problem Space

In all these examples, what I should have done — and what you should do too if you’re a starting entrepreneur — is to start in the problem space. Start on problem mountain.

And this is not easy to do. After all, it’s much easier to just think of cool solutions: Instant teleportation. Flying cars. Airbnb but for office spaces. Uber but for animals.

But to think of the problem that these solutions solve is much more difficult. But that is exactly what you should do. Start with a specific target group in mind, and find a problem.

Do whatever you can do to climb problem mountain. To start in the problem space. Test your assumptions with your target group — and make sure they actually find it a problem.

Only when you have verified the problem’s existence, is when you move, slowly but surely, to solution mountain.

After that, you’ll definitely go back and forth a number of times. To test your solution; and refine the problem further. But the first step should be made on problem mountain; don’t be attracted to that beautiful shrubbery.


Playing with FIRE book: Financial Independence, Retire Early

Illustrating the cover of the playing with FIRE bookWhenever I have free time, I tend to read. Books about personal development, entrepreneurship, or a variety of other topics. One which I recently finished, is the Playing with FIRE book by Scott Rieckens.

I had heard about FIRE before, and although I found it interesting, it never really stuck with me. Now that I read the book however, I have a new-found interest in FIRE, and want to share some of my thoughts.

 

What is FIRE?

Before going into what the book is about, let’s discuss FIRE. FIRE, or Financial Independence, Retire Early, is a global movement, community and/or world view.

The concept is simple. People who are trying to achieve Financial Independence (or ‘FI’) are working and saving money in order to be financially independent — or in other words, not be dependent on a monthly salary.

And when you’re finally financially independent, you can retire early. After all, you now have enough money to live from, and do not need to work to pay your bills.

It may sound incredible, but depending on your level of commitment, reaching a state of FIRE is entirely possible.

“How?!”, you may ask. Well, a lot (trust me: a LOT*) has been written about FIRE, by people that know its ins and outs better than I do. By risking over-simplifying the concept, the steps you have to take are as follows:

  1. Take stock of your current assets and liabilities (i.e. everything you own and all your debts),
  2. Look at how much you earn, and how much you spend on a yearly basis,
  3. Calculate when you could achieve financial independence.
  4. Now (drastically) cut your spending, and
  5. Invest your savings.

Depending on a variety of factors, such as how far you can cut spending and how well your investments work out, you may be able to retire as early as in your 30s (!).

To many and me included, that almost sounds like a dream come true. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. And the Playing with FIRE book illustrates quite well how difficult it may be.

* If you want to read more about FIRE, I suggest these articles and blogs:

 

Scott Rieckens’ auto-biographical account of FIRE

So, with that brief explanation of FIRE out of the way, let’s now turn to the Playing with FIRE book*. The book is an account of the first year in which the author started ‘practicing’ FIRE; in other words, the first year in which he and his family living in a way with the goal of achieving financial independence.

As I also stated on Twitter, the book is really easy to read, and you’ll finish it in just a couple of days. It’s a good introduction to FIRE and how anyone potentially could achieve financial independence. However, what really stands out for me is his (family’s) view on FIRE, and the way their lifestyle choices change over time.

At the start of the book, the family lives in California at the beach. With a beautiful house, a boat club membership, two fancy cars and much more, they seem to have it all.

But as you’d expect, this is not a lifestyle that fits with saving up to be financially independent. And this is what makes the book so interesting. Because the more they become convinced of the FIRE mindset, the more they become convinced they need to change their spending habits.

For them, this is not so easy. For instance, the cars they have are not just a luxury, but they signify the fruits of their labor. They work hard every day, and for that they are rewarded — in this case with a BMW.

In theory, getting rid of that car means that they lower their monthly (and annual) spend, which in turn means that their ‘FI date’ (i.e. when they’re financially independent) comes more than a year sooner. In practice, it means that they choose to forego this reward, which will only be reaped (in the form of FI) in more than ten year’s time.

*Note that I keep saying the ‘book’, because the author (Scott Rieckens) has also created a documentary with the same name. At the time of writing, I have not yet seen the documentary.

 

Retiring Early vs. an All-Wheel Drive BMW

And as you might expect, that is not an easy decision to make. Would you decide to not buy a particular car or house, if that means you can bring your retirement closer?

For many people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, retirement is (many) decades away. It’s a vague concept, something we don’t think about. And even if you do think about it, the choice is not so clear — wouldn’t you rather have something now than in 10 or 20 year’s time?

But the turning point for the author and his family is when they start thinking about what really matters to them. And surprise, surprise, it turns out that fancy cars don’t matter as much as you’d think. Instead, they care about spending time with friends, family, and their little daughter.

In this way, they find out that reaching financial independence sooner is actually more important than a fancy all-wheel drive BMW, or other material things. After all, that means that they can spend more time with their family, doing things they really love and care about. And eventually, this thought process results in a thought-provoking question…

 

Does Your Spending Reflect Your Values?

Does your spending reflect your values? In my case, I’m not sure yet what the answer is. We all spend money on things that don’t matter as much as we think we do. In my case, I’m saving up for a beamer and PlayStation 4.

Does this align with certain values I hold? Do I value playing videogames? Do I value playing videogames on a large screen? To some extent I do, but I can’t say I’m a big beamer or game-fanatic. For me, it’s simply a way to relax. I can also relax in different ways; I don’t necessarily need videogames to do so.

So to come back to the playing with FIRE book, whether or not you (and in this case, I) actually will pursue FIRE after reading it does not matter so much. It’s a great introduction to the concept, and it definitely makes me think about whether or not retiring early is something for me (and whether it is, is something for another blog post — subscribe to be the first to read it!).

But more importantly, Rieckens shows that thinking about personal finance and your (financial) future has everything to do with what you find important in life. And that the choices you’re currently making — or the ones I’m making considering that PS4 — may not actually fit with what you really value.


Why I love Side Projects and Indie Hackers

The internet made so many things possible. From the words you’re reading on this screen to Google Maps, smart phones, and even smart coffee makers*, the internet offers endless possibilities.

But there’s one thing — one thing in particular which I find incredibly fascinating. And that’s the new kinds of businesses that have sparked all these products, services and connected machinery.

The idea that you can build a business independently, from the comfort of your own home, is simply amazing. All you need is an internet connection, and your imagination.

* Yes, these things exist. And in contrast to what this article tells you, no, you don’t need one.

 

Independent Hacking & Side Projects

There are a variety of words that are used to describe these kind of internet business. Some call them ‘Indie Hackers‘, which is actually an online community of ‘independent hackers’. In other words, indie hackers are those that ‘hack’ or ‘create’ an online product or service by themselves, often without external funding.

Similarly, you often hear the word ‘side projects‘. Because there’s a very low threshold to start, many coders, designers and entrepreneurs start their business ‘on the side’. They have a normal job, and simply start coding a website or building an online community in the evenings, weekends and nights.

But whatever you call it, it all comes down to more or less the same thing. It’s about setting up a (small) business that runs almost entirely on the internet — and needs little in terms of financial or human capital to get started.

 

Why is this so great?

The fact that you need so little to start an indie hacker project is what makes them so interesting. As an example, one of the projects I worked on in the past was a home goods company called Lowland Living.

Lowland Living offered one product: gummy bear molds. Don’t be put off by the weirdness of the product — to me, this was a revelation. As a Dutchman, I was able to sell Chinese-made products to consumers in the United States, while never setting a foot in either of those countries! The story of how I did that will be the topic of another blog post, but it’s a perfect example of what the internet has made possible, and how easy it was to start this.

A similarly interesting and personal example was an affiliate website I build in 2017, called All About Chairs. I’m not some strange chair fanatic, but on this site, I reviewed a variety of (office) chairs, rating them on how comfortable they were, their quality, etc. Throughout the website, I placed affiliate links — linking to Amazon where people could buy the chair in question. If they bought the chair, I received a small commission.

Just like Lowland Living, this project wasn’t a great success. And just like Lowland Living, how I built the company will also be the topic of another blog post. But again, these examples show the power of the internet, and how weird and amazing some internet businesses are. Plus, they really demonstrate what’s possible, as long as you’re keen to learn, are internet-savvy, and somewhat determined.

 

Some Examples of Fascinating Indie Hacker Projects

Now that I mentioned some of my side projects, let’s turn to what I find highly interesting projects by others.

Perhaps some of my favorites are projects I’d like to call ‘mail someone a thing’. Take for instance Ship Your Enemies Glitter. As the name says, this webshop allows you to ship your enemies very fine glitter. Which sticks. Everywhere.

Or alternatively, why not mail someone a potato? In 2018, this webshop was making more than $100,000 per year by shipping message-potatoes to people all over the world. A weird idea plus the internet equals profit!

But that doesn’t mean that an internet side project has to be meaningless or weird. At the Enter Network meetups that I run, we’ve had someone talk about a website that shows the ideal sizes of cabin baggage for specific airlines. Or consider NomadList, a community created for ‘digital nomads’, that brings in more than $300,000 per year, and was founded by just one person!

I can go on and on about these kinds of businesses. But the bottom line is, the internet is amazing. And there’s much more possible than you would think. Would you like to hear more about these possibilities and my own experience building indie hacker projects? Read more about this blog, subscribe and I’ll keep you posted.